How to encourage healthy competition among peers at exam time

As your child prepares for the board exams, competition is one factor that causes considerable stress. Find out how to encourage healthy competition that is beneficial

By Aruna Raghuram

How to encourage healthy competition among peers at exam time

The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that competition is destructive … It’s a toxic way to raise children. The absence of competition seems to be a prerequisite for excellence in most endeavours…Alfie Kohn, author and speaker

Life is not a competition. Life is about helping and inspiring others so we can each reach our potential.
Kim Chase, producer and actress

Competition is very good… as long as it’s healthy. It’s what makes one strive to be better.
Christine Lahti, American actress and filmmaker

It is nice to have valid competition; it pushes you to do better.
Giannie Versace, Italian fashion designer

As can be seen from the diverse quotes above, competition is a hotly debated subject. While those in favour believe that it keeps children motivated and on their toes, there are opponents who believe it is not desirable. So, how do parents deal with competition children face in the academic sphere especially while facing class 10 or 12 board exams?

Competition is inevitable
Social psychologist Dr Camile Johnson writes in Psychology Today that competition among children is inevitable. It is a fact of life in many situations that not everyone can win. There are three types of situations children face she explains. In “zero-sum situations” like individual sports there is only one winner. Quoting Dr Stephen Garcia’s research she says that here the negative aspects of competition rear their head. Children are less likely to act in a friendly or cooperative manner.

However, in “non-zero-sum situations”, such as class grades, more than one child can get an ‘A’. Here the negative side of competition is less likely to come out. There is a third “mixed motive situation” exemplified by team sports where children may be competing with peers as well as cooperating. Here, the success of a teammate is both good and a threat for each member.

Dr Johnson goes on to write that each of these three kinds of competitive situations can teach children different lessons. The zero-sum situation is a lesson in losing gracefully and working to improve your performance the next time round. In the situation where there can be many winners, parents can guide their children to help peers in the group who require help. This can foster leadership skills. Finally, mixed-motive situations like team sports are rich learning environments, according to her. They enable children to look at the bigger picture and develop “citizenship and compassion”.

Healthy vs unhealthy competition
The thumb rule is that when competition triggers feelings of inadequacy and jealousy in a child it is unhealthy. Also, when a child looks at a peer who is doing better than him and feels that the peer’s success is reducing his own chance of succeeding it is unhealthy. This happens when competition is perceived to imply that the desired outcome is scarce. For instance, there can be only one overall topper in a class.

When competition motivates a child to vie for attention and seek validation from others it is normal, but not healthy. The worst form of competition is if you harm another person’s chance of success to further your own ends. In contrast, in healthy competition, the primary goal is fun, and learning and growth are valued above results.

Why healthy competition is good
Healthy competition – whether in academics, sports or the arts, is not a bad thing at all. Here are some benefits:

  • It promotes interest and engagement with activities
  • It encourages a child to do his best and master a task
  • Encourages teamwork, and effective communication, and cooperation
  • Instils strong work ethic
  • Competition helps a child learn about himself – his strengths and weaknesses
  • It helps children cope with stress – which is an important life skill to acquire
  • Teaches lessons in sportsmanship, humility, and respect for others
  • Gives lessons in the importance of preparation and discipline and builds mental toughness
  • Comparison with peers offers vital life lessons in success and failure
  • It builds a child’s character and helps him get ready to shoulder adult responsibilities
  • Friendly competition in school promotes curiosity and critical thinking
  • It enhances social and emotional learning

Effects of competition in education
A 2010 Spanish study ‘Effects of competition in education: A case study in an e-learning environment’ authored by Cantador and Conde analysed the effects of competition in education. With 77 college students as participants, it identified “features that should be present in a competitive learning activity in order to motivate students and improve their academic performance”.

The study demonstrated that competition in an e-learning environment can be beneficial subject to certain factors. They are: a symbolic or little value prize; short duration; a goal linked to the learning process instead of to results; and that students should have fun and enjoy the learning process. In this context, games are an attractive feature. The study also observed that the features ensured a balance between competition and cooperation. They also ensured that the focus remained on the learning goals rather than on the competition.

The dark side of competition

  1. Alfie Kohn (quoted above), who focused on the negative aspects of competition, believed that competition can cause anxiety, damage self-esteem, worsen performance, and lead to disengagement with studies.
  2. Apart from hurting a child’s growing sense of self-esteem, competition can promote the wrong values. For instance, children may resort to cheating to get good grades.
  3. Competitive children may not take failure well. In fact, competitiveness may breed bitterness in the peer group. Some children may brag and gloat (if they are doing well) or bully their peers (if they themselves are performing poorly). The ‘toppers’ may lack empathy for their less fortunately placed peers.
  4. Fear and anxiety are common reactions to the competition that exams bring. Some children may give up and get depressed if they are not getting good marks. A low self-esteem may propel them into a cycle of making mistakes, poor performance, failure, and lower self-worth.

Needless to say, academic competition when inappropriately handled will lead to a mindset focused on marks and results while learning takes a back seat.

Here is an apt analogy – when we plant seedlings, they compete with weeds and other plants for water, sunlight, and other nutrients in order to survive and flourish. In the same manner, children need ‘nourishment’ and support in order to develop a healthy competitive spirit.

The Dos
Encourage your child to study in a “friendly” yet challenging environment:
Here, marks take a backseat – children compete for the fun of the challenge. Some ways this can be brought about are:

  • Children could compete over who can do a task first/faster
  • The could check each other’s papers
  • Children could quiz each other
  • They could play friendly games based on the syllabus
  • They could brainstorm and motivate each group member to think more
  • Children could solve each other’s problems
  • They could give peers ideas to improve overall performance of the group

Be conscious of your child’s individuality: It is important to recognise your child’s unique personality traits and allow her to compete in her own way. Your child may not be as competitive as other children. Also, some children prefer studying alone while others do well in group study.

Explain the importance of doing one’s best: While you inculcate this value in your child, also ensure you focus on effort rather than outcome. Praise your child for working hard but do not overly focus on marks or results. This will ensure that competition among peers does not get stressful or ugly.

Stress on mastery and learning: When parents highlight that the goal of education is learning and mastery over skills, and not obtaining good grades and making it to the top of the class, competition takes on a healthy hue.

Encourage combined study: It has been said: “Competition makes us faster; collaboration makes us better.” Encourage your child to set up study dates with like-minded peers for group study. This will enable the children help each other and cooperate so that they can all give their best. Provide a suitable place without distractions for combined study.
In his book Transformative Classroom Management: Positive Strategies to Engage All Students and Promote a Psychology of Success, Dr John Shindler observes that in a collaborative project (for instance, combined study or a group project), students are not likely to exclude or ignore peers whom they see as less skilled or valuable.

Encourage growth mindsets: Dr Carol Dweck’s well-known book Mindset describes how important it is for children to have a growth mindset where they believe they can improve on their attributes and better their performance. Healthy competition is one way to encourage the growth mindset. This is because competition sets benchmarks for children to monitor their own progress.

Make competition a fun and positive experience: Dr Shindler also emphasises that games (and quizzes) could be used to make competition fun. “They will raise the level of interest and excitement while accomplishing essentially the same degree of content processing,” he writes. Identify games and activities your children think are fun and also have cognitive benefits and encourage these, he advises.

Give unconditional love: Don’t make your love conditional on their performance or success. Shower them with physical affective, time and attention, especially during exam time. This will enable your child to face competition confidently.

The Don’ts
Do not judge or compare:
Comparing your child’s performance to that of her peers is a sure-fire way to promote unhealthy competition. Tell your child that there will always be someone who performs better than him and someone who does worse. It is all relative. It is also important to instil empathy in your child for peers who have not performed as well as her.

Don’t push children:Encourage your child to work as per her abilities. Each child’s potential and limitations are different. Ultimately, though competition with peers is a reality, it is more important to compete with oneself and improve past performance.
Says Meenu Kaul, media professional and mother of a 13 year old, “I don’t pressurise or force my child academically in any way. He does whatever is within his capacity during exam time. I never compare his performance with that of his peers.

How to encourage healthy competition among peers at exam time
Nalini, mother of a Grade 12 student says, "My son and his best friend both compete in academics but theirs is a healthy competition. They will try to figure out a problem on their own and discuss whose method was better. They aren't worried about grades but like to challenge each other, to push each other to think better, to do better, to take it to the next level."

Finally, competition is part of growing up and if it is healthy, it renders several benefits. In fact, in today’s highly competitive world it is important for children to have a healthy competitive spirit.

In a nutshell

  • The pros and cons of competition among children in the academic sphere is a subject of much debate
  • But competition is a reality of life and if it is healthy it can be beneficial for children
  • Parents can encourage healthy competition among children during exam time by following certain strategies

What you could do right away

  • Stop asking your child how many marks his classmates obtained in an exam
  • Encourage your child to invite friends over for combined study
  • Try to make competition fun by organising games and quizzes based on the syllabus

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About the author:
Written by Aruna Raghuram on 5 February 2020.
Raghuram is a journalist and has worked with various newspapers, writing and editing, for two decades. She has also worked for six years with a consumer rights NGO. At the time of writing this article, she was a freelancer with ParentCircle.

About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 12 February 2020.
Dr. Singhal is the Manager, Global Content Solutions at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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